More coffee for the Main Line - with a plan

Posted: October 02, 2013

Tim Noble says that when it comes to coffee, the Main Line is "tragically underserved."

That might sound like an overstatement. After all, the area is dotted with independent cafés and overflowing with Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Saxbys, McDonald's, Wawas, and the like - sometimes more than one coffee shop per corner.

But Noble believes there are not enough, and he has staked his business model on that conviction. He opened Town Hall Coffee in Merion three years ago, and his second shop, at Ninth and Chestnut Streets, will celebrate its grand opening next week. He is planning a third for Ardmore.

"The average coffee drinker drinks average coffee because they don't have access to quality cafés," Noble said.

He said he aims for "a severe degree of quality" at his shops. Though a cup of coffee at Town Hall costs $2.75, almost three times as much as it would at McDonald's, Noble insists that "if people are interested in value - not just pricing but value - they'll end up here."

Noble is not alone in his enthusiasm. In the last two months, other new coffee shops have opened up in already caffeine-soaked Ardmore and Wayne.

In Ardmore's Suburban Square, shoppers are moments away from two independent cafés, a Starbucks, a Saxbys, and a Corner Bakery Cafe, as well as several restaurants and bakeries that brew coffee. Walking through the shopping center, Linda Sullivan said, it's too much.

"There's no need for more coffee. We need something different," she said. "How about a gourmet grilled cheese place? Or a great Mediterranean restaurant?"

But most consumers wouldn't stop for even the best grilled cheese every single day. Coffee, however, is a different story. The Specialty Coffee Association of America says that 40 percent of young adults and 54 percent of 25- to 39-year-olds drink at least one cup daily. That's a lot of customers that cafés compete for every morning.

At Sophie's Cafe, which opened in mid-August in Wayne, manager Fernanda Pireda says her store sets itself apart - despite the fact that there are three independent coffee shops and a Starbucks within two blocks of it. The difference? Sophie's opens at 6 a.m. every day of the week, which means that on weekends, it beats every competitor but Starbucks.

The cafe's sit-down lunch service has been so popular that the owners hope to add dinner, too. And so many customers complimented the bulging shape of the deep-blue mugs that the store started offering them for sale.

But Sam Abrams, a barista at Gryphon Cafe just down the street from Sophie's, pointed out a challenge for new cafés. Coffee shops like the Gryphon, a 17-year-old Wayne establishment, rely on their every-morning regulars for much of their business. New cafés have a hard time developing that following, since most local coffee drinkers have already formed their habits.

"We've seen a lot of coffee shops come and go through Wayne," Abrams said.

Michael Selser, the chef and owner at eight-year-old Du Jour in Haverford, has also watched coffee shops flood the Main Line. "The area has been saturated, literally, with competition. As new places pop up, you just have to make sure you're doing the best you can do," he said.

Selser said that Du Jour aims for an upscale clientele - workers on their way to the train station file through for a $2.25 cup of imported Illy coffee in the morning.

At Melodies in Ardmore, strollers are more common than suits. Young mothers stop by for an afternoon pick-me-up, and artists and students stay all day to use the free WiFi at the cafe, which opened with a new owner and a new name in August after MilkBoy closed its outpost there.

"Everyone has their own niche," said new owner Mark Roy, who left his job as the district manager of a snack company to run the coffee shop. "Our claim here is we're a listening house." That means open-mike nights, and BYOB concerts three times a week.

Heidi Tirjan, who works for Lower Merion as a retail recruiter, helped bring Melodies to the space when she learned MilkBoy was leaving. She fields calls daily from residents who suggest businesses they would like to see in the township.

"People are really not asking for coffee shops that I talk to. I think that they are happy with the ones they have," she said.

So what's the next business that Main Line residents are clamoring for? "People say they want a really great sit-down Mexican restaurant."

jzauzmer@phillynews.com610-313-8207 @JulieZauzmer

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